Many authors would feel daunted by the prospect of putting out a new book soon after a multi-award-winning novel. But after writing and teaching for over 40 years, Joan Silber knows the only thing in her control is to continue working on her craft regardless of getting published. Her latest book, Secrets of Happiness, takes readers around the world, from New York to Thailand and back again, and proves the age-old advice that the best way for a writer to grow is to just keep writing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Joan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Secrets of Happiness.

Joan Silber: Thank you. I’m very happy to be here.

Zibby: Which, of course, is basically what everybody wants to know anyway. This is it. This is the manual, the fictitious version of the meaning of life here. What’s your main takeaway? What’s the secret?

Joan: I do not have the secret. I engineered the title with some sense of irony. Although, I was joking with my editor saying, “We can sell a billion copies if they think it’s that.” In the beginning, a woman discovers that her husband has a secret family that he’s had for years. He has secrets. The idea of secrets is important in the book. The second family is from Thailand. He’s in the garment business and has been traveling back and forth to Asia for years. She has always wanted to go. When she’s divorced from him, she decides to travel to, of all places, Thailand, which is where the other family is from. There’s a lot of irony in that. She has a wonderful time and actually comes back — she’s okay to begin with, but she’s changed for the better by being there. The first chapter was published as a story under that title. Of course, I just loved that title because we all wish we had the secret to happiness.

Zibby: Totally. I love, by the way, when she gets back from her trip to Thailand and her son says she looks like a backpacker and is just like, you would never know that she wasn’t homeless, or something like that, all disheveled. I actually loved your depiction of how a wronged woman takes life into her own hands and goes off. I thought it was so fitting that she went to Thailand. She’s like, no, no, no, this is not going to be my story. I’m going to go claim this territory. It’s like she took it back, which I loved.

Joan: Oh, good. I’m glad. That was certainly an effect that I wanted from that.

Zibby: Good. I thought it was so neat how you just kept the characters going. You would introduce a character. It’s like a basketball game or something. They would pass the ball to the supporting player. Then they would take it over and run down the court. I loved how you stitched it together like that so you’re always going off in these directions.

Joan: I love that form. The past five books, including this one, have done some variation of that. Although, they’re all quite different. I feel like I’ve done my best work in that form because it allows me to have the very — I like the intimate gaze of a really close scene and someone’s interior life being depicted. I also wanted to do a larger canvas. This gave me a way to do that, so I’ve been happy in this form.

Zibby: It’s great because you’re always meeting new people and finding new situations. It keeps it moving. You’re always learning. It’s neat. It’s like you’re in a rowboat going down different tributaries or something.

Joan: I love that. Thank you.

Zibby: I’ll stop with my apologies. You’ve done so much teaching. You are obviously so accomplished, and National Book Award for your last book, all sorts of great stuff, and now this beautiful novel. What is it? What do you teach? What is the trick? What are some of the things that you think are really important? Clearly, the product is effective. What is the means to an end that you’ve found to be most impactful in your work and that you share with others?

Joan: I taught for thirty-five years at Sarah Lawrence, actually. I’ve taught at many other graduate programs as well, especially Warren Wilson. When I first started teaching and I didn’t know how to do it, which is what teaching is like, I felt like I was looking for the form in each story. You’re trying to think, there’s some good things in here, but what’s missing? What’s it trying to do? I’m always looking at the intention rather than trying to impose something on it. I think that’s important. It taught me about form and about structure, which are nicer words than plot. I think the plot sounds a little bit A, B, C, which I don’t exactly look for. I’m looking for what’s most distinctive in each student’s work. I’m trying to get the story to move a little bit, especially because I’m getting literary writers. They’re the ones that decide they want to study with me. That actually often needs a little heightening. You want to do that without being artificial about it. It’s just a way of paying attention to what’s happening. I’ve always taught in programs where you get to question the writers a little bit. You want them to go deeper, and often by finding out what they really meant.

Sometimes I have this great advice. Then it turns out, oh, no, they don’t want to do that. They want to do this. I can then kind of revamp what I was saying. I don’t have any one thing that I’m trying to convey to them. I’m careful about my sentences, which is good, but I feel like I was overtaught about line editing. That’s so important, but that’s not usually the heart of the matter, unless it’s a way to go deeper, which is what revising is. I emphasize content and form more than sentence by sentence. That’s just my way to do it. Someone just told me, one of my friends said that Dolly Parton, who of course, we’re all grateful to for helping the vaccine stuff, but Dolly Parton tells people, find out who you are, and do it on purpose. I thought, oh, that’s great. That’s fabulous advice to all of us. Of course, everyone who hears that says, how do I find who I — like, oh, it’s so easy to find out who you are. I think of that as a process of trial and error. That’s another thing that I tell students. Get ready to try this and try that. Try and fail before you get where you’re going. That’s my doctrine.

Zibby: Interesting. Writing advice via Dolly Parton. Who knew? You never know what you’re going to get when you start a Zoom. This is great. How did you get started in writing to begin with?

Joan: I pretty much always wanted to write. As a kid, I was a constant reader. My mother would say, “the house could burn down, and you have your nose in a book.” She was a reader herself but was afraid I was too dreamy. As the daughter of immigrants, she wanted me to be more grounded, which I probably never ended up being. My passion for reading made me want to try it. I certainly wrote a lot as a kid, wrote stories in school, and was praised for that, which always makes you want to continue. I was an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence at a time when you could study writing. It wasn’t an undergraduate course for many years. They were kind of advanced in that. Anyway, I always loved doing it. I had a very long zig-zagging career with a lot of ups and down to it.

Zibby: Then what did it feel like when you got to a place like with your last book when it got so many accolades and everything? What was that like after? Not that your other ones weren’t successful as well, but it seemed like that was the pinnacle of literary success. What did that feel like to you?

Joan: Of course, it was great. I celebrating and celebrating. I’ve had a zig-zagging career in that between the second and the third book, there were thirteen years when I couldn’t get a book published. I was publishing stories in good places, but nobody wanted to publish a book of mine. My writing sort of changed during those years of defeat. I call it my thirteen years in the desert. One of the things that does for you, among other things, is it taught me to live without the work being happily received by the world. Writers need that. As much as I enjoy people loving the work, you can’t rest entirely on other people’s opinion. You have to be able to go on without that. I already had a little of that under my belt when the good stuff happened. I think that, also, it helped me enjoy it in a different way. I was totally pleased and hoped that everyone who ever said anything bad about me read the review, anything like that. It’s sort of natural. It’s been a great time for me.

Zibby: When you look back on the writing you did during those thirteen years, do you understand now why it didn’t sell, or are you still sort of — what was it? Why wouldn’t it sell?

Joan: I think there’s two reasons. I think the work developed during that time. I think my writing style, my voice has always been sort of similar, that mix of a certain amount of wisecracking but a really serious narrative and an intimate gaze on the interior of the characters. I always wanted to be bigger. I couldn’t quite figure out how to do it. During various hard times in my life, I developed an interest in Buddhism. For many years even before that, I was a buddy for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, so I was around those emergencies. All of that fed into the work. I think the work got better, is one answer to what happened. I also think the world changed. I think that I’m lucky now in that — also, the world can change again, as we know it keeps doing. I think that people like it. When I first started doing this form, the first book in this form, Ideas of Heaven, was quite successful, but there were never people who thought that it really wanted to be something else. Doesn’t she want to write a regular novel? Why does she keep hopping around? Now people know that I’m doing that on purpose. They may or may not like it, but they understand that it’s intentional and that I have an idea behind it. I also think, because I move around in time and sometimes move around geographically, usually move around geographically because I’m a great traveler, the world is more ready for that than it once was. So two things. I changed, and the responses of the reader public changed.

Zibby: Interesting. I love that change in location, if you will, because it gets you — I really feel, when I’m immersed in a book like yours, that I’m in those places. I am in the prison in Thailand or Bangkok or whatever trying to rescue the brother and bribing people. Then I’m all the way back home. You get all those senses evoked in your mind like magic. I really enjoy that. I’ve never been to Bangkok. Now I feel like I’ve experienced it in a new way because of how you present it to me, which I just think is the greatest.

Joan: Thank you. I have been to Bangkok a number of times, but I have never been to a police station. Many Westerners have and have written about it. Who knows? I tried to be as accurate as I could. I have some sense of it from reading all that stuff. I love doing research. That’s really fun for me.

Zibby: What is like when you’re doing research when you’re preparing to write, when you’re actually writing? Are you at that desk where I’m seeing you now? Where do you like to do your writing? How much research do you do before you start? What’s your whole process like?

Joan: It’s a back-and-forth sort of thing. I try and be at my desk whenever — the writing time, for me, is between lunch and dinner, which is a little eccentric. People usually work in the morning. When I’m working, I might — okay, I know I have to have a scene in a police station. I know that I need to know more about it. I’ll look online, usually. There are a couple books by people who were arrested for drugs in Thailand that I was able to read. I’m doing some reading while I’m writing. I will have done some reading maybe in the morning to get me going. There’s a back-and-forth. I’m a very slow writer. I do the thing that you’re always told not to do, which is, I revise as I go. I look at what I wrote the day before. I say, oh, no. I fool with it. Then I keep going. That actually helps me. Right now, I have a normal pace. A novel comes out every three and a half years. That’s sort of regular. I like doing that. The chapters are pretty separate from each other. I’ll finish one section. Okay, I’ve finished the section about the brother. I should say this for people who haven’t read the book. The father has had a long-time affair with this woman from Thailand who is really set up as his second wife in Queens, and their two sons by that connection. I follow one of the sons around for one chapter. He has to bail the other son out of jail at Bangkok. Once I finish that section, I think, what’s the next one going to be? I had a left-behind girlfriend who had a whole other adventure. I decided I was going to follow her around. Then I start researching the next section before I write. I loved doing that. Research is more fun than writing, so I do that as long as I can.

Zibby: That’s really interesting. I love that. So you don’t know ahead of time which characters you’re going to be following? It’s whoever pops up?

Joan: I knew that I was going to follow the brothers once I finished the first chapter. Ethan is the narrating character for the first chapter. I knew I wanted to come back there in the end. That’s really all I know. I always tell my students to write a synopsis and know where they’re going and so forth. I just have very rough notes. I don’t really do that.

Zibby: It’s like that director. What’s his name? Robert Altman. He used to do all those movies where you would follow one character. Then you’d go right into the next person. You just are bouncing around.

Joan: Yes, yes.

Zibby: What was that called? Short Cuts? I don’t know.

Joan: Short Cuts, it’s a movie of his.

Zibby: Gosh, I don’t know where I pulled that out. That was from the eighties or something. It reminded me a little of that. What are you working on now?

Joan: Now I’m working on a book. I’m in the third chapter, but the first chapters are a little messier than usual. The premise is a guy who’s now perfectly successful and stable and is a seventy-year-old father of a daughter in college, is asked by his daughter, what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? He doesn’t tell her, but he tells us. The worst thing he’s ever done is when he was using drugs in the seventies, he was shooting heroin, and he betrays a friend at a bad moment and is haunted by that for the rest of his life. He’s not entirely sure of the outcome of that, but he knows he did the wrong thing. That’s the first story. We follow him through his whole life. The second story follows a girlfriend of his from that time who’s become a successful actress. I thought of her as one of those people — during this last campaign, I got emails frequently from famous people who wanted me to give money to the democratic party. She is an imagined version of one of those people. She has a whole other life story. Then in a movie that she’s very successful in, she plays a character in 1935 Hong Kong who’s smoking opium, because there’s a drug motif in this book, and almost dies doing it, but doesn’t. Now I decided to make that character she plays an actual person that the movie was based on. I am inventing things. I’m reading about 1930s Hong Kong, which is really fun.

Zibby: Wow, that’s great. So you also enjoy dipping into different — that’s the power of authors to take us places and everything. Excellent. What’s one last parting advice for aspiring authors, someone just starting out?

Joan: I have three things I always say, which is, cultivate equanimity.

Zibby: Wait, don’t say any of those three things. Say something totally new, something that you don’t say all the time.

Joan: I think the most important thing is for people to ask more of themselves. You’re happy when something’s done. That sounds okay. You have to go deeper in it to make it worth someone’s reading. You want to say what only you can say rather than imitate. That’s my somewhat garbled advice.

Zibby: I love it. That’s great. Amazing. Joan, thank you so much. Thanks for shining some lights on the Secrets of Happiness, some light, I should say, on the Secrets of Happiness. I really appreciate it. It was great to chat with you.

Joan: Thank you. It was great to be here. Thank you.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Joan: Bye-bye.



Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts